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Since expanded bullet-train service between Tokyo and Hachinohe near Misawa Air Base debuted Dec. 1, ridership has increased significantly.

Japan Rail East officials in Tokyo said an average of 9,900 passengers use the 60-mile segment daily, an increase of 3,500 riders daily compared with the number of passengers who used slower, limited-express trains that operated last year.

A company spokeswoman said the present seat-occupancy rate on the new bullet-train segment is 38 percent. Overall, Tohoku shinkansen trains saw a hefty 102.2 percent increase compared with last year’s seat-occupancy rate.

Harder to determine, she said, is the reason why it has increased — since statistics are based on the first eight days of the new bullet-train service.

“It is hard to estimate if the Hayate has had any effect yet,” she added.

The Hayate, Japanese for gale, bullet train covers the 392-mile route between Tokyo Station and Hachinohe Station in two hours and 56 minutes, 37 minutes faster than trains that formally served the stations.

Before bullet service began north of Morioka, passengers had to hustle to a lower-level platform in Morioka Station to board a limited-express train for the journey to Misawa and points north.

Passengers headed to those destinations still must change to limited-express or local trains at Hachinohe, however.

Japan Rail East officials said 16 bullet trains operate between Tokyo and Hachinohe daily, providing a total of 26,000 seats. A one-way unreserved fare between Misawa and Tokyo is 16,350 yen, or $136.25.

The start of bullet-train service was the deathblow for the nightly sleeper train Hakutsuru, which had operated between Aomori and Ueno stations since 1964.

The Japan Rail East spokeswoman said local rail service between Morioka and Hachinohe was turned over to a third-sector corporation when Hayate service began because, in order to operate trains between those stations, the company would have to pay fees; that would cause an increase in sleeper-train fares, making the proposal too expensive.

Railroad officials also anticipated a decline in the number of passengers opting to use the sleeper train now that the travel time between Hachinohe and Tokyo has been reduced to less than three hours.

In anticipation of competition for traveler dollars, Japan Air System — the sole commercial carrier serving Misawa — earlier slashed airfare prices between Misawa and Tokyo to closely match bullet-train fares. The airline also reduced the number of daily flights to Tokyo from five to four.

Shunsuke Taki of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport’s railway bureau said the extension of the Tohoku bullet-train line between Hachinohe and Aomori is expected to be completed in the next 10 years.

Exact completion dates, however, are unknown since construction timetables are based on the annual Japanese fiscal year budget, which changes from year to year.

A 20-mile-long tunnel is now under construction on one segment of the Aomori extension. A partial collapse of the tunnel last year killed a construction worker.

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.


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